In much the same habitat as Virginia bluebells grows our earliest-blooming aster family species: Packera aurea (formerly Senecio aureus), commonly known as golden ragwort or golden groundsel. It starts blooming about the same time as the bluebells, but in the Potomac Gorge area seems to hit peak bloom just after the bluebells do.
Though they grow together, I’ve noticed that golden ragwort may have a bit more tolerance for slightly drier soils than the bluebells do. In some areas I can see that the land closest to the river is carpeted in bluebells, while a short distance away – on the other side of the trail, for example, where the land starts sloping upward – the carpet changes to ragwort.
Golden ragwort is a colony-forming perennial forb that grows to about two and a half feet tall. The flowers are borne on a corymb ( a more or less flat-topped cluster) and have the typical aster family arrangement of ray flowers and disk flowers.
The basal leaves are oval with a cordate base and have scalloped edges and long petioles.
The stem leaves are completely different: narrower, deeply lobed, and sessile or clasping.
Golden ragwort is one of 57 Packera species native to North America. Look for it growing in moist to wet woodlands in the mid-West, mid-Atlantic, New England, a few parts of the South, and eastern Canada.